PARCC can teach us … if we let it

Opinion by Amanda Kocon in the Albuquerque Journal

03/09/15

 Anxiety about the new PARCC standardized tests has been swirling for a long time now, and as a parent I’m concerned about the level of testing anxiety we have created.

 

To be up front, I work in education policy, so I know a little bit about the ins and out of the testing debate. But I look at this issue first and foremost as a mom. My daughter will be taking the PARCC test for the first time next week. I don’t want her taking tests if they’re not a good use of her time, and I don’t want her to be anxious or scared.

 

Growing up in New Mexico, I took the dreaded CTBS test, as well as the PSAT, SAT and ACT. Testing in education is not new.

 

As an adult, I’ve taken a myriad of job-related tests.

 

But as a mom, I see the issue around testing with different eyes — I want to know whether these tests will really be a good use of her time. Will they help me and her teachers understand what she’s mastered and where she still needs help? Or will they be a waste of time that only turns her into a giant ball of stress?

I decided the best way to come to an informed opinion about PARCC was to take it myself. So I did. I sat down one morning and worked through parts of the 4th grade PARCC test, which is on the PARCC website.

I found a test that is light-years away from the CTBS test of my childhood. For starters, I had to really think. This is not the mindless exercise that probably pops into your head when you hear “standardized test.”

In literacy, rather than guess at word definitions, I had to understand the use and choice of a word in a specific writing sample, to determine the author’s intent and to support my opinion. The math portion required not only a deep understanding of fractions, but that I demonstrate my knowledge in a real world scenario.

It was harder than I expected, but it is exactly the kind of knowledge I want my kids to master, and the kind of thinking work we all want our kids doing throughout the school year.

I also took away a better appreciation for what a big change this is. The test is certainly harder than those our kids have taken in the past.

That’s a good thing. Kids cannot fake their understanding as I once did on the CTBS test by randomly filling in multiple-choice bubbles. It gives me a lot of confidence in the results: If my daughter answers a question on PARCC correctly, I can trust that she really learned the concept underlying the question.

When my daughter sits for her first PARCC exam, it will not be without some stress. I suspect her scores won’t be as good this first time around as they would be if she were taking the SBA test kids have been taking for many years in our schools.

But if that means we are getting better information about what my daughter is learning and where she needs help, then we should welcome this change. In the meantime, I’ve asked her to just do her best. And with hard work and support from her amazing teacher, I have no doubt she’s up for the challenge.

We have big dreams for our kids – but above all we want them to have choices. We want this time in their lives to be about finding their various passions and expressing their creativity, having access to the arts, math, science, history, literature, current events, music and well-being and team work through sports.

We want them to be able to write their own story. And we want to know without a doubt that they are not denied choices because they do not have a rock solid foundation in literacy and math.

PARCC is going to help us know that they have the academic foundation they need to choose whatever path they want in life.

Amanda Kocon is the mother of two children who attend Santa Fe Public Schools and an executive vice president at TNTP, a national education non-profit that trains teachers to work in low-income schools, and advises school districts on recruiting, developing and retaining excellent teachers. TNTP does not work with any schools in New Mexico.

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